Almost Really Real: How the word “virtual” deconstructed itself and what its curious etymology tells us about the future of virtual reality and truthiness   

Chasing virtual reality, what we used to call cyberspace, has spawned a multi-trillion dollar worldwide industry, which makes it a pretty sexy phrase, right? But do we really know what we mean when we use it? In normal conversation today, when we say something is virtually true we’re saying something like,

“It’s just about almost perfectly completely and for all intents and purposes as effectively true as truth … but not essentially, really true.” 

So when we call it virtual reality, this technology meant to fool you into thinking you’re experiencing something you’re not, we’re saying it is “almost really” real, or virtually real, don’t we? It’s a beautiful oxymoron, and more or less accurate, depending on how cool your hookup gear and the simulations inside are. 

Since we’ve made a trillion-dollar bet on it, wouldn’t it be valuable to know what we mean when we use it? What deep human urge does it promise to fulfill? What itch is it scratching? Perhaps, armed with that deeper understanding, we may even be able to predict where it’s going. I think we can do that by looking at the curious history of the word virtual Continue reading “Almost Really Real: How the word “virtual” deconstructed itself and what its curious etymology tells us about the future of virtual reality and truthiness   “

The end of the book, tech-mediated telepathy, and other hallucinogens

This is a heavily redacted prophesy about the end of the book and the coming of machine-mediated brain-to-brain communication I wrote in February 1993 to Kali Tal as part of a longer exchange about hallucinogenic drugs, the coming of mind-to-mind communication through VR, and other things.

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Bumpercar enhanced empaths

Tools are human.

There are no technologies without humanities.

Artificial intelligence is a metaphor for the psyche. (And not much more, believe me.) Just as the idea of a psyche is a contraption of cognitive psychology and philosophy, and the brain is a concoction of neurology, so is AI just an idea of what it wants human intelligence to be. (A machine.)

Multimedia, even as virtual reality, is a metaphor for the sensorium, a perceptual gadget beholden to poetics and media studies. It’s got a wonderful future, but it’s just a stab in the dark theater of our desire to be more intimate and stimulating.

Nothing is yet quicker than the light of the slow word.

Yes, we are in the late age of print. What we whiff now is not the smell of ink but the smell of loss, of burning towers or men smoking cigars in the drawing room, thinking they are building an empire. Hurry up please, it’s time. Yes, the time of the book has passed. But it will persist to give glorious pleasure, like other obsolete forms that continually renew themselves and the soul: the poem, dance, graffiti. The book is dead, long live the book.

We will continue to read from paper just as we continue to write poems and tell stories. But we shouldn’t be so attached to the idea of the material thing called a book, which is after all just one of many technologies for delivering the word that began with scrawls on clay and stone. Think of the book as a metaphor for the process it inscribes, for getting one’s solo thoughts into many other heads, one at a time. Just one of many technologies we’ve devised to get what’s in my brain into yours and vice versa.  Tech-mediated-telepathy.

When Sony showed Discman, a portable, mini-CD the size of a Walkman, capable of holding 100,000 pages of text, a discussion on the Gutenberg listserv complained with pain, with nostos algia, wistful pain for home: “The smell of ink … the crinkle of pages…”

“But you can’t read it in bed,” she said, everyone’s last redoubt, the last-ditch argument.

Meanwhile in far-off laboratories of what Stuart Moulthrop calls the Military-Infotainment Complex at Warner, Disney or IBApple and MicroLotus, a group of scientists work on synchronous smell-o-vision with real time simulated fragrance degradation shifting from fresh ink to old mold. Another group builds raised-text flexible touch screens with laterally facing windows that look and turn like pages, crinkling and sighing as they exfoliate.

“But even the dog can’t eat it,” someone protests. Smiling, silently the techies go back to their laboratories with bags of silicon kibbles.

Swimming amidst this undertow, tilting at this windmill, we should keep alive the idea of what the book was and can be, Don Quixote. Tristram Shandy. Gravity’s Rainbow.

In an age when people buy and do not read more books than have ever been published before, perhaps we will each become like the living books of Truffaut’s version of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, vestal readers walking along the meandering river of light just beyond the city of text. We face their tasks now, resisting what flattens us, re-embodying reading as movement, as an action rather than a thing, appropriating the metaphor that we think will diminish what we love.  We should view the book as a network, a node in a network, each word an implicit hypertextual link to archeologcal layers of meaning and what has already been written elsewhere.

And as we appropriate the term, we should also colonize the territory, invade it, dominate it. The network is ours to inhabit. We will read there.

But how?

Think of what we need to get VR to work, I mean really work. You need a map of how cognitive modes function in the neurophysiology of the brain that then can be mimicked by a dumb ole binary machine, even a massively interconnected one … with enhancements (like direct electrical plugs into the brain).

As we get better and better at doing that, we’re gonna achieve some pretty good turnaround time in transcribing thoughts into evanescent images beyond words. We will produce other sensory kinesthetics (I should say performances). The time between upload and download shrinks, the kinesthetic performances become better and better at representing what’s in our heads, especially since the gear is our heads, and pretty soon you get telepathy, or tech-mediated telepathy, its asymptote.

Now amp up the part of the brain that integrates connections into feelings of transcendence – is it the dorsal raphe nucleus? — with a pattern that does something like Ecstasy or MDMA –forced massive sudden depletion of the serotonin reserves, so the big whoosh comes flooding down (or up) from the brainstem, and you get your waterbed bumpercar enhanced empath … Holy shit there’s more here than I thought. You just did it to me, that miracle:

I think I know what YOU MEAN.

 

Literature, Letterature, Liturgy

The poetry we learn to read in school is famous for its difficulty. The difficulty comes from layers of possible interpretation. For many, the encounter with poetry is thankfully brief, but whether a joyous or horrid experience it introduces us to reading as the opposite of what good communication is supposed to be: clear, unambiguous, efficient.

Now imagine a genre of ultra-poetry, written in an alphabet on beyond zebra, where every word, every letter multiplies possible meanings. Such a literature would invite the reader into a mad tango of interpretation. The promise of unfathomable depths would beckon our imaginations into an embrace with the lure of transcendence, a sacred psychotropic drug. Call it letterature.

The Torah is written in primitive Hebrew.  It lacks vowels, which means the same consonants can represent multiple words.  As originally written, the Hebrew Bible also lacked spaces between words, so it was in essence one long word.  It wasn’t until groups of Jewish scribes, the Masoretes, who worked between the 6th and 10th centuries CE, added definitive breaks, punctuation and vowel marks that the Torah was frozen and reduced into a canonical version.  The Masoretes created what was in effect a translation, and all translations are partly treasonous –traduttore tradittore, as the Italians say. Choices of meaning were negotiated based on intense and sacred scholarship from the Talmud, the centuries-long interpretive Jewish tradition. But as negotiations in committee, they cut off alternatives that remained alive in the original text as multiple coexisting potentials and mutually-illuminating layers. That’s why I call the Masoretic project, with all due respect, a “catastrophe.

So many of the most radioactive words in the original Hebrew -(dbr דבר or et את) are not-yet-words or something-more-than-simple words. They are lambent with meanings that are always becoming, emergent, autopoetic. In short, almost all Hebrew texts are always already a form of literary, one might even say poetic, expression: difficult, opaque, demanding interpretation.

By the standard of the Greek ideal of clarity, Hebrew without vowels is a hopeless muddle. Walter Ong in Orality and Literacy (1988) and Eric Havelock in The Origins of Western Literacy (1982) both show how perfecting the alphabet as a tool for transcribing and preserving speech brought about massive cultural and congnitive innovation. Indeed, Havelock places this innovation at the root of the origin of Western Civilization.  But both scholars have pernicious biases about the origins of literacy among the Hebrews, dismissing Hebrew as primitive and incapable of either inspiration or literature, which is of course laughable in the face of the Bible.

Yet, armed with our understanding of the essential alephtavian style of an ambiguity-generating script, we can see that vowelless Hebrew is already a form of hyper-poetry, generating difficulties and inviting interpretation in almost every word and letter.

Indeed, the whole literary/non-literary dichotomy makes no sense as we try to apply a Greek understanding to Hebrew textuality. We need a whole new word for the kind of discourse engendered by these letters which form words that are never quite words with fixed meaning as the Greek ideal demands.

In reading Hebrew,  we are perpetually reading a kind of letterature. Sense is suspended between our decoding of the letter and our reading of the word. We shuttle back and forth in an interpretive frenzy attempting, often vainly, to be sure of the intended meaning. This is really literary reading tending not towards clarity but dyslexia. As Amos Oz quipped, “There is no word in Hebrew for fiction.” Perhaps even the truth value of any text is suspended between the threat and promise of the infinite sign, ever-promulgating interpretations that at the first reading defeats the illusion of telepathy, but at another opens hailing frequencies to a very animated and dynamic metaphysical plane.

I don’t know about how you take your literature (or should I say, how your literature takes you) but this sure feels how I am seized by mine, in all its transports of pleasure, the joy of possibility and the enticement of revelation to come.

A good poem – or a dense novel striving to become a hypertext – exiles us, for a time. We read and we are lost somewhere in the wildness of the possible and the wilderness of mutually-enriching meanings, in bemidbar. The opacity of the text tells us that if we wander there long enough, and if we climb the mountain, then perhaps revelation will come. Reading the Torah then becomes devotional, a form of pray. This letterature is liturgy.

Now, in our age of  virtual reality, the fate of this constant assault of multiple mutually self-altering meanings becomes relevant again. Hypertext in its ideal form makes every part of the text central, a hub with spokes to many possible links, and therefore marginal. The principle of hypertext is the intelligence of the reader wandering in a wilderness of texts, each become like a letter in an alphabet that goes on beyond tav, omega, zebra.

The premature insistence on presence and intimacy in our culture has led to the urge for a technology of telepresence or virtual presence or cyberpresence. This urge has metaphysical roots. And it has obvious ramifications. In what sort of voice does God address Moses? Will He again address humanity?

To most readers and others fascinated by VR, nothing could be more remote or uninteresting than the quasi-religious subjects of this blog. As one e-mail correspondent put it, “I wish sleep on the good rabbis and the Church fathers.” In other words, the eyes of most readers are on the future, on a gleaming technological horizon that is seductive and brings with it promises of utopian reorganizations of capital, labor, play, communication, sex, and intimacy, or at very least, interesting new cultural terrain to explore and colonize, interesting new configurations of old relationships.

This blog is exploring a continuity from the time we scrawled on cave walls to the day coming soon when we have a form of art that relies on brain-to-brain communication. This continuity shows that it has always been brain-to-brain communication, or at least mind-to-mind. And the technologies which we so often view as doing something to us, as autonomous forces like The Terminator, are extensions of all our qualities. Our media technologies can even be a form of prayer.